Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of articles from WeLoveAnnArbor highlighting members of the Pioneer girls’ swimming and diving 2020 state championship team.
By Terry Jacoby/WeLoveAnnArbor.com
Swimming is an individual and team sport and sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. Take the Pioneer girls’ swimming and diving program for example. The Pioneers are so good that it seems like they could plug any swimmer into any event and excel – their front line swimmers are outstanding but they also have great depth.
It’s a nice thing to have, for sure. And it creates a picture of dominance, which was the case this past season as the Pioneers swam away with the Division 1 State Finals. Consider, too, all those frontline swimmers are coming back for another splash next year.
One of those talented Pioneer swimmers is Autumn Bullinger, who, like her teammates, can get lost in that team mix. The junior had an amazing season in 2020-21 despite all the challenges created by the pandemic. Before we get to the starting line and finishing line, let’s start there because this past season was certainly unusual.
“Swimming is not a sport where you can easily interrupt your training,” says Bullinger. “During the pauses we were swimming on our own in whatever pools we could find. The inconsistency of training, and not knowing when we would be competing was mentally and physically challenging.”
Bullinger, 17, and the Pioneers certainly did an admirable job of dealing with the obstacles in and out of the water.
Last year as a sophomore, Bullinger had a fantastic state meet. She was a member of the winning 200 free relay team and also swam on the 200 medley relay team, which placed second. She finished 10th in the backstroke and was 21st in the 50 freestyle.
Despite all those challenges, Bullinger took it up a notch at this year’s state meet, which was moved from November to January because of the pandemic lockdown. She swam on the winning 200 free relay and was seventh in the 100 free and 11th in the backstroke.
And back to the team for a moment – it was impressive. The Pioneers dominated from start to finish, including winning all three relays, as they coasted to a victory at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Hudsonville. Pioneer racked up 368 points, while last year’s champion Farmington Hills Mercy placed second at 184.
“It was really exciting,” Bullinger said of winning it all. “Everyone was diligent, prepared, and focused the entire meet. We have been working towards this goal for several years, and being able to share that moment with each other is a memory I will cherish forever.”
She said this year’s team was “special.”
“This year brought a lot of challenges and we never knew what was around the corner,” she said. “Despite COVID restrictions and having to miss out on team traditions, we still formed the best memories and were just really grateful for every day we got to swim with each other.
“The girls on this team have always been extremely close, but this year really strengthened those bonds. I truly couldn’t have asked for better teammates.”
It also was the perfect response to last year’s state finals where the Pioneers landed just one point from the top spot.
“I think everyone expected us to be heartbroken with the outcome, but it was the complete opposite,” Bullinger says. “We knew we gave it everything we had and we all left that meet with smiles on our faces. I was, and still am, incredibly proud of this team, and I’m extremely grateful to be a part of such a special program.”
Bullinger, who began swimming at age 6 at Georgetown Country Club, is a longtime member of Club Wolverine, another special program.
“I tried a lot of other sports, but ultimately I felt the most at home in the water,” she says.
Bullinger has one more year to go in her “home” Pioneer pool and she hopes to go out in style.
“Pioneer still has more to offer and I’m excited to get back to work next season,” she says. “These girls are not only my teammates, but my best friends and I’m looking forward to making every last moment with them memorable during my senior year.
“I think we all have big individual goals too, both in and out of the water, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”
Autumn, the daughter of Jodi and Chris Bullinger, has a 3.8 GPA and is looking forward to challenges coming her way after high school.
“I do have plans to continue my swimming career,” she says. “It has always been my dream to swim in college. I’m hoping to find a school that challenges me both athletically and academically. I have started the recruiting process and I’m eager to see where it takes me.”